Note: I promise my following entries for this travel log will be considerably shorter than this ramble…
I flew out of Montreal with colleagues at 11:10 PM on Sunday 23 September. After a 12-hour flight, we had a stopover for a couple of hours in Doha, Qatar, where there is an entire terminal for business and first-class passengers that is simply mind-blowing – lots of sheiks (never seen a real, live one before!) We then caught another 4-hour flight to Hyderabad, India, the site of our meetings, where we arrived at 4:00 AM on Tuesday 25 September (Hyderabad time = 9.5 hours ahead of EST). I was too tired to notice my surroundings as we piled into our shuttle to the city, although I did notice stray dogs roaming around the highway. And I do not mean loafing around at the side of the highway – I mean crossing it, stopping to scratch a flea-bitten ear in the middle of it, all the while going miraculously unscathed even though the drivers made absolutely no attempt to avoid hitting them. I guess seeing as I am writing about it, those cursed dogs on the highway were my first impression of India.
As we entered the city, my apprehension started rising. First of all, my colleagues were all staying in the hotel recommended by my office. Even that place looked like it was in a shaky location when the shuttle driver pulled up to it and my colleagues departed leaving me alone with the driver who did not even know where my hotel was. I had booked a place, called the ‘Swagath Residency’, for half the price and was now deeply regretting it. Nevertheless, after a few missed turns and some heated phone calls, the shuttle driver pulled up in front of a 3-story building. “We’re here!” he declared proudly, nodding his head sideways.
“No, we’re not,” I said, grumpily. “That’s a Chevrolet dealership. See the cars in the windows and the ‘Chevrolet’ sign? AND it’s closed!!!”
“No, No. Hotel on top!”
“On top! On top!”
“No, it’s not! The place is in total darkness!”
“Come, come. Bring bags. I show.”
The shuttle driver took my bags and I stepped out into a ditch as there was no sidewalk. After we clambered out of the ditch and up some broken steps, sure enough there was a sign for the ‘Swagath Residency’. A dull glow came from inside. It was emanating from one of those ancient elevators that have sliding metal folding doors that you manually open and close. After an eternity, we ascended to the second floor, above the dealership, where 3 very sleepy Indian guys were manning the reception.
“You no here,” said one of the men after consulting a computer that looked like it had been built sometime before Steve Jobs was even born.
Having prepared myself for this eventuality, I produced a printout of the email confirmation of my booking. “Here!” I said. “Proof of confirmation and all 27 nights paid in advance! See!”
The reception guy gazed at my printout nodding his head slowly sideways. He passed it to the other two sideways head-nodding guys and then, after some belaboured exchange in Hindi, he asked: “who this guy?”
“The guy wrote email.” At this point, I was so tired and stressed I got really pissy with them, lecturing them that I worked for the United Nations, important meetings, heads would roll, etc., etc. I think just to shut me up the guy agreed to give me a room for the night and we would sort it all out with the manager in the morning. He ordered the other two guys to carry my bags up onto the 3rd floor. As I followed them, I was too tired and grumpy to notice what the corridors of the hotel looked like.
When we entered my room, I noticed that it was about the same size as my hotel room in Nagoya, Japan, two years earlier (which was smaller than my bathtub in Montreal). After the porter guys left, I sighed with relief that the room at least was spotlessly clean, was air conditioned, equipped with a TV and had a decent bathroom. Then I opened the curtains and my heart sank as I looked out onto a plastic tent slum below me. My anxiety started to peak: I was in a tiny room, there was no record of my booking, I was all alone in the dead of night on the other side of the world, jetlagged to hell and I had no idea where my hotel was in relation to the Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) where I would be working for the next month. For all I knew, the HICC could be on the other side of the city.
Solution? Get on the computer and have some cyber contact with the familiar (no, I am not referring to my favorite porn sites). I called down to reception for the Wi-Fi Code and the reception guy soporifically mumbled the imaginative code: “2a2b2c2d2e.”
“Thanks!” I almost shouted with delight down the receiver.
Two minutes later I made another exasperated call to reception: “The Wi-Fi isn’t working!!!”
“What do you mean you know? I was guaranteed this hotel had full and reliable Wi-Fi!!!”
“Great Wi-Fi, sir! Five band Wi-Fi! But server down until tomorrow.”
“And you couldn’t have told me that when I asked for the code in the first place???!!! Arrrggghhhhhh!!!!”
Too tired to get any more upset, I collapsed on my bed and remained completely unconscious until I woke up 7 hours later around 1:00 PM.
After such an unhappy beginning, I am not sure I have ever had such a “brand new day” feeling as this one – certainly not while traveling. To cut it short, as I’m rambling, here are bullet points of all the things that made me happy on my first day in India:
- I discovered that the hotel is really quite lovely: polished stone corridors with dark wooden doors, exotic plants in the windows and an unplaceable mild fragrance in the air (which is neither curry nor BO).
- I found the manager at the reception who, speaking excellent English, showered me with apologies for my treatment upon my arrival (his sideways head-nodding was so vigorous, he looked like a demented bobblehead at a baseball game). He told me that my room was not only booked, confirmed and paid for 27 nights, I was reserved for a much larger room and he would have my things moved immediately.
- The manager further caused me enormous relief by informing me the HICC was less than a 20-minute walk away and he then personally escorted me half way there.
- As he led the way I was very pleased to see that the front of the hotel was not a plastic tent slum, but a vibrant thoroughfare. Let me rephrase that. Kondapur Road can only be described as a mesmerizing and dangerous riot: the traffic is a truly lawless jumble of cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, hand-pulled rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians (many of whom are women balancing enormous clay bowls on their heads), stray dogs, chickens and even the odd goat (no, I am not making that last one up to be funny) – it makes Bangkok look like Singapore. Every single motorized vehicle is permanently blaring its horn, even in the rare instances it is standing still, and the noise is perpetual and deafening. Negotiating the sidewalk-less street feels like breathlessly scampering through a heaving battlefield where life is just one misstep away from being carelessly snuffed out. The traffic lights are dark empty holes and apparently have not been working for years. The roiling dust and exhaust fumes and sweat in the hot air combine to add to the interminable sense of purposeless urgency. Lining the street are chaotic shops and rudimentary stalls of every variety and virtually all of the ‘buildings’ are in some stage of decay. Everything coated in a slick film of… something… I love it!
- The HICC was, to my delight, very pleasant. It is unimposing, lots of natural light and staffed by hordes of Indians who simply do not believe in work, God love them. The Men’s bathrooms have fresh flowers in them (I can only imagine what they put in the Women’s). I found my colleagues easily in the area allocated to us and bathed in their familiarity.
- After spending a couple of hours getting myself oriented at the HICC, I headed back to the ‘Swagath Residency’ where I was astonished by the truly palatial room that I had been transferred to down on the second floor. It is a luxury suite by any Western standards with the exception that it lacks a mini-bar. I did not care about that, though, because I had discovered on my way back that 2 blocks away I can buy giant, ice cold Carlsberg beers to bring back with me that are about $1.50 each.
- I then discovered that, when I want to be lazy about dinner, I can order absolutely delicious Indian food to my room for insanely low prices.
- AND the Wi-Fi was up and running, 5 bars strong.
- AND I was informed that there is a daily complimentary breakfast. This was truly a pleasant surprise as it had not been advertized on the website. It is an Indian breakfast (I will describe in my next blog entry) which is fine by me as I love the food here.
- AND there is an ATM literally next door for me to get money.
- The final cherry on top was I learned that my colleagues, who are paying double what I am, are too far away from the HICC to walk and have to be bused in to work through the hellscape that is Hyderabad traffic. Muahahahaaha!
It is Saturday night, 29 September, and I have been here a few days now. There is not much to report as all I have done is work, eat and sleep. A few late-night walks around the immediate neighborhood to get some air is the best I have been able to manage so far. Also, I do spend some time before I go to bed looking out onto the frenzied chaos of Kondapur Road from my hotel room’s enormous bay window. I think about the Indian people and the truly hard-bitten lives they lead. They certainly do not seem unhappy with their lot but, by the same token, India is also not the ‘Land of Smiles’, like Thailand, a country that also suffers from desperate poverty and crushing disease. I cannot really put my finger on the communal expression in the sea of faces. The closest adjective I can think of is: determined. But what are they determined to do, I wonder, as I draw the curtains. I look around at my opulent room. Determined to live another day, perhaps, as I realize guiltily that I spend more on this room a night (all of $46) than the average Indian family makes in 2 weeks.